Book Review: In the Land of Invisible Women by Dr. Qanta Ahmed

I read this book not so much to learn about Dr. Qanta Ahmed’s experience, but to recall my own. I wanted to say, “Yes! Yes! That’s the way it was!” at every turn of the page, and I was able to do so. Her descriptions of sights, scents, sounds, clothing, surroundings and people are spot-on accurate. Perhaps I might have found those details excessive, had I not lived in Riyadh for twelve years, worked in a hospital, and experienced much of what she experienced. Her narrative portrays objective truth, for her and for me and for many women like us– Westernized Muslims who have lived and worked in a Riyadh hospital during the 1980s and 90s.

It also portrays an internal truth that rings true for me. In many ways, her story is an ordinary story, in that she progressed through the same adjustments we all experienced during our stay in Riyadh, yet nothing in Riyadh was ordinary. We single women who formed an esoteric group of medical professionals, both expatriate and Arab, shared a path– a wonderful, exciting path that is portrayed beautifully in this book.

A single woman could hardly spend any time in Riyadh without enduring her own Muttawa story, the elements of which are identical for all us us, though the details differ. We did not ride in cars too many times before being pursued by eager males, who sometimes latched onto our vehicles and didn’t give up until our nervous drivers reached our combination havens/prisons behind gates and guards.

We endured the uncertainty and confusion of how to relate to male colleagues from different areas of the world. We often fell in love with one or more of them. The term “Riyadh Romance” carried a specific meaning, referring to an attraction that blossomed there, but maybe withered when transplanted.

We could hardly seek to understand anything without making peace with wearing the the abaya, and discovering that it, along with the scarf and sometimes face veil, let us glide comfortably through the same spaces our uncovered colleagues found awkward.

We discovered the depths of emotion, talent, and ambition present in women who previously seemed insipid under their black wraps. We entered the lush world of Saudi femininity and saw– literally– what men are not allowed to see. We reclaimed the state of sisterhood we may have felt as prepubescent girls.

We ended up in Mecca sooner or later, if we were Muslim, and we opened our hearts to God wider than they’d been opened before.

We also learned that some ugly national stereotypes held up well under observation, just as those we carried with us from our countries of origin.

We opened our eyes to complex political situations that showed us unequivocally that the poles of East and West really do intend to destroy each other on the glorified backdrop of justice. We learned to pray that those poles be dissolved, if not brought into the fold on a realistic backdrop of justice. We realized that the most we can achieve is a mitigation, not a restoration, of rights inherent to the state of human existence, rights that some people enjoy from birth, and others are denied.

This memoir is, after all, a memoir, and should be read as such. For those of us who’ve lived in the Kingdom, it will bring memories into close focus. For others of us, it should inspire investigation into the subjects it addresses. I cannot imagine that this book could disappoint anyone who holds even a superficial interest in memoir, East-West relations, Islam, Saudi Arabia, or the expatriate experience in Riyadh

A Visit to the New Mosque, Uncovered

The community in which I live has just completed the construction of a new mosque, alhumdullilah. It was many years in the planning– from raising the funds to finding the site, then getting permission from the local government, followed by the complexity of design, architecture, contracts, construction, weather, fittings, appointments, etc. This mosque marks a victory for nearly one hundred Muslim families who formerly drove thirty-five minutes to the main mosque in another part of the city.

I attended an Open House there last weekend. I knew there’d be displays, good food, talks, plenty of interaction with Muslims and non-Muslims, and maybe a renewal of spirit for me as well as other attendees.

I didn’t cover my head, out of a desire to remain non-hypocritical. I don’t cover, except for prayer, so why should I cover to go to the mosque for a social event? I don’t believe covering is a requirement of Islam, and I’m not going to argue the point.  My relationship with the practice holds more meaning for me than delving into the minutiae of Islamic law. Besides, even if covering is required, I’m still not going to do it in the United States–period.

Well, my old ambivalence about covering has not evaporated despite years of living in the United States, where covering is not enforced by a CPVPV (Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice). My ambivalence has nothing to do with the religious legality of the issue, however. It’s about being recognized– or not– as a Muslima. Quite frankly, there are times when I want to be recognized for my faith, and times when I don’t. As for modesty, that’s a non-issue these days; I’m a gray-haired senior citizen.

The Open House featured question and answer sessions with community leaders. Most in the audience were non-Muslims, and naturally, head covering interested them. The speaker, a woman who devotes much of her time to community outreach and education, said that yes, head covering is required. I didn’t contradict her– there’s no point debating the issue–  but she gave a good argument in favor of the practice.

She said that because the head cover immediately identifies the woman as a Muslim, her behavior is always on display as a reflection of her faith. It gives the woman constant opportunities to behave as best she can according to the manners, beliefs, and practices of Islam both with respect to herself and with her interactions in society.

I liked this explanation better than any other I’ve heard. It trumps the  Qur’an and Sunnah based interpretations, at least for me. I felt sorry I had not covered, because people greeted me with, “Hello,” and not, “Assalaamu Aleikum,” to which I responded, “Assalaamu Aleikum,” which brings me to a situation that I find irritating: women who are not covered are assumed to be non-Muslims. For the record, it ain’t always so!

Besides, I bristle at the idea that Muslim women should be recognized in public as Muslims, while Muslim men wear no such badge on their heads. I wonder how long the practice would remain relevant if men had to wear a cap with an “M” stamped front and back.

Anyway, the new mosque is beautiful and just a fifteen minute drive from my house. I renewed acquaintance with several women I hadn’t seen for quite awhile, and I met some new ones whom I’d love to see again. I’ll be attending programs and prayers at this mosque– the sooner the better–and I’ll do so covered.

Book Review: Kabul Beauty School, by Deborah Rodriguez

I loved this book. I couldn’t put it down. I think it is very well-written, contrary to some reviewers who think otherwise. The narrator’s voice remains in character, and the language flows nicely. Though the writing is conversational, it does not succumb to the repetitions and irrelevant interjections that cause actual conversations to become boring.

This book is as much personal memoir as it is an account of how the Kabul Beauty School developed. The author’s personality weaves in and out of her environment in a fascinating account of cultural conflict, cultural engagement, and the remarkably unpredictable results that emerge when people do not let go of their own cultural orientation while trying to function in foreign country.

Deborah retains her American perspective on just about everything; she continues to smoke and drink in a Muslim society, looks forward to celebrating Christmas, and feels little need to adjust her behavior with men in deference to the prevailing attitude of quiet feminine subservience. In this way, she is different from the authors who accept the religious and cultural attitudes of their adopted countries.

At the same time, Deborah becomes profoundly involved with many of the women who attend the beauty school. She also marries an Afghan man, only a few weeks after she met him, and in spite of the fact that neither speaks the other’s language. Many readers will frown upon a protagonist who makes such a vital decision based upon none of the commonly accepted parameters that predict marital happiness, but this decision, probably more than her other decisions, displays her personality perfectly. She is a risk-taker, and willing to assume the consequences.

One wonders how it has fared over the years, but I suspect both of them will accept the influences over which neither has much control to strengthen or dissolve the marriage.

The beauty school closes and opens, and closes again, amidst accusations and rumors regarding what Deborah did or didn’t do with respect to taxes and other aspects of the business. Who knows, certainly not the reader of this book, but none of that is important to the purpose of the book, which is exactly what Deborah says it is– an account of the terrible circumstances of the lives of Afghan women, and how the beauty school gave some of them a chance to develop themselves in a way that most women of the world take for granted